Mention filigree, an ancient Indian jewellery art form, and you envisage gossamer threads of gold and silver interwoven intricately to create a magical web of forms – light in weight, but heavy on style! The age-old jewellery making craft has won many hearts over generations, with designers adding their own modern spin to it.
Filigree is a complicated handcrafted jewellery art form that was practised since the 6th century BC in Greece and Etruria, and later the art took root in Italy, Egypt, India and Armenia.
The name filigree is composed of two words – Latin for ‘filum’ which means thread, and ‘granum’ or grain. The process to make filigreed jewels is tedious, to say the least. Silver or gold bars are first melted and converted into rods, which are then placed inside machines that draw out thin wires. For instance, a gram of silver can produce a kilometre-long wire.
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The wiring work in filigree goes through several processes like annealing, straightening, twisting, and flattening. Various types of thin wires of gold and silver are twisted, braided, coiled and soldered with ‘rava’ or granules in an aesthetic manner in the voluminous web-like designs – and all this demands precision often requiring delicate work with fingers or tweezers. The polished or lacquered filigreed forms of flowers, concentric spirals, leaves and more in the jewellery finally leave you mesmerised.
Some of the historical filigree silver centres are Cuttack, Odhisha, (known for its tarkashi filigree style since almost 700 years), and Karimnagar in Telangana. While in Cuttack the artists often prefer to eulogise the rose in their works, and borrow motifs from the architecture of the land, the artisans of Karimnagar prefer to depict motifs of leaves and tendrils and other intricate designs. In fact, Karimnagar silver filigree obtained Geographical Indication (GI) status in 2007.
Suvankar Sen, Co-convener, Promotion Marketing & Business Development, GJEPC, states, “The art of creating jewellery from golden wires and balls requires utmost concentration, patience and skill. Unfortunately, with digitalisation, patience and skill are virtues that are almost alien to our young artisans, thus making this a rare and dying art. We, as a jewellery industry, need to make efforts to preserve it. The Middle East or South East Asia, the Indian diasporas across the world, need to appreciate and respect the art of filigree.”
Concerted efforts are on by the Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC), and each year, at its flagship event India International Jewellery Show (IIJS), it dedicates a Crafts Pavilion to highlight different jewellery crafts, including filigree, to underscore their antiquity as well as integrate them in contemporary designs.
Nina and Bharat Ganatra, founders of Hemraj Jewellery Craft, have been participating in IIJS since 2011 to promote their filigreed jewellery, and have succeeded in finding clients across the globe. They are also coming up with an initiative to form a consortium, Cuttack Tarkashi Association, where craftsmen, investors and sellers can come under one platform to work at economies of scale for producing handcrafted filigree jewellery in Cuttack. “The city has come to be associated with filigree work since ages. But as we progressed, the craft got sidelined due to mass produced jewellery. However, thanks to the publicity that this craft has been recently receiving for its handcrafted production techniques, we strongly believe that the exports of handmade silver or gold filigree jewellery can grow exponentially in markets abroad if provided right the stimulus,” observes Bharat Ganatra.
He is of the view that 70% of the total addressable market for filigree jewellery is in the USA, Europe, the Middle East and Australia. “We need the backing of bodies like the World Gold Council, World Craft Council or Novica to promote, exhibit and increase awareness about this craft. The GJEPC has been playing an important role in promoting this craft, through its Crafts Pavilion – at each of its IIJS events.”
Nina Ganatra notes that the filigree techniques haven’t changed much, but they are not in sync with modern techniques and there is a need to change production methods to improve finish, as well as ensure timely delivery, while preserving the art form and artistic skills. She believes that providing value addition to filigree craft in terms of design can have a huge impact on niche markets where consumers appreciate this form. Nina also sees opportunities for bespoke gold bridal jewellery in the near future.
Fortunately, many fine jewellery manufacturers, working in gold, have kept this art form alive. Filigree work is either introduced as one of the main motifs in a piece of jewellery, or the entire piece is handcrafted with the aid of this craft – filigree is seen in prêt, couture and bridal jewellery categories complemented with gemstones, polkis, diamonds and enamel. Filigree in platinum, too, is popular, especially in engagement rings and wedding bands.
The Indian industry is blessed with the best craftsmen who are practising filigree or tarkashi requiring a great amount of patience and an eye for detail. It’s imperative to expand business by creating unique and modern narratives in silver and gold filigree to engage a wider audience.